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I’ve always jumped around from job to job, but this time I’ve topped myself. I’ve taken the job of Galactic Emperor, six millenniums from now.

Or, to be exact, I’m playing the role of the Emperor Simonides in the Imperial Realms game for which I did some writing last year. Steve Bougerolle, whose project it is, offered those who have contributed to the game the chance to be immortalized in this way, so I agreed.

I did think of standing in for Basileus III, the emperor notorious for enobling his pet cats (and demoting one to Baroness when she scratched him), but, I thought Simonides a better match. After all, for all my eccentricity, I’m not likely to give titles to animals. But Simonides, who helped revigorate the empire by mobilizing against the Nano threat sounds like a steady, personally austere type of organizer I might at least hope to emulate.

I’m especially pleased because Simonides is one of the emperors whose accomplishments I specified while I was writing about the aliens and human clans in the game (the history is Steve’s).

One small problem with Steve’s idea is that I don’t look very Imperial. But a studious type like Simonides – whom I imagined while writing about him probably had an office right behind the throne room where he spent most of his time – I might just be able to pull off (in the dark, with a group of near-sighted people who had forgotten their glasses). A warlike emperor would be harder for me to pull off with even marginal conviction.

Still, the thought of someone as solidly working class in origin as I am playing an emperor of any sort amuses me more than I can say, so I’m making sure that everybody knows of my elevation. If you’re a friend, and you haven’t received an invitation to the coronation all I can say is that, next time, you’ll know better than to slight me, won’t you?

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I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me – for I was likely to have but few heirs – as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered.

– Daniel Defoe, “Robinson Crusoe”

 

The year end lists in newspapers and blogs always leave me bemused. The ones that list top stories for the previous year always leave me feeling that I’m either living in an alternate universe or that I’ve missed everything important while preoccupied with the business of living. As for the ones that predict the coming year, they seem purest fantasy – my own included. Still, like Robinson Crusoe, I find it useful to look to my karmic accounts now and then. So, as the last hours of the year wind down, and I wait to leave for tonight’s party, here’s my accounts for the last year:

On the negative side, my mother-in-law and her sister died within a few days of each other last spring. Neither death was unexpected, since they were both in their nineties, but when you’ve known people for decades, they leave a large gap. I also lost a friendship, apparently irretreivably, although I don’t quite know why and I’m irked at my ignorance of the causes. And, most important of all, my partner’s illness continues to be chronic, with me helpless to do anything about it.

On the positive side of the ledger, I made a few new friends for the first time in a year or two, and have become marginally involved in Free Geek Vancouver, one of the worthier causes I’ve encountered recently. I’m a firm believer that volunteer work is as good for my psychological health as any advice I’m able to give might be to the recipients.

However, the largest addition to the positive side is my development as a writer. Although I dropped my efforts at fiction about May, 2007 has been by far the best year I’ve ever had for writing.

Just in terms of volume, I wrote about 245,000 words of articles on free software, or about 185 articles. I also wrote about 45,000 words for the Imperial Realms online game divided into 17 articles and about 55,000 words spread over 135 posts. That’s a total of roughly 345,000 public words alone.

By other measures, my writing year was also successful. During the year, I found new sources for my work, and I now make as much money freelancing as I ever did as a communicatins consultant (good thing, too: I’m getting too old to learn how to knot a tie again). I was interviewed four or five times over the year, either as a writer or as a subject matter expert. I also returned to an academic project that I started years ago and abandoned. And, just as I was typing this paragraph, I received an email from a friend telling me that an article of mine had been Slashdotted, making the perfect end to the year. So, in many ways, I think that 2007 marks my first real understanding of myself as a writer.

Looking over the paragraphs above, what strikes me is the imbalance between the personal and the professional. Not that the personal was particularly awful, but it seems thoroughly overshadowed by the professional. If I were superstitious, I’d be tempted to say that there’s only so much karma to go around. Or, from a psychological perspective, perhaps I’ve been practicing the fine old Freudian tradition of sublimation.

And what do I see looking ahead? I can’t even begin to guess. But there’s a scene in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King where Lancelot says that, after an encounter, he got down on his knees and “thanked God for the adventure.” I’m not religious, but I hope that I can must the same combined sense of stoicism and adventure as I face what’s waiting for me in 2008.

Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.

— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

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I sold my first article at 14 to Wargamer’s Digest, and I’ve been selling odd bits of my writing ever since. In the last few years, I’ve written a couple of hundred articles each year, and the thrill of publication has been almost lost in more practical concerns (Any typos? Do any of the comments reveal that I’ve overlooked something? Where’s the cheque?). I’ve even learned to take wry humor in being called a moron or a paid flunky of a company or cause. But one experience I never had until a few weeks ago was seeing my words illustrated by someone else.

Well, that’s not quite true. Years ago, I did have a cover for Witches of the Mind, my book about Fritz Leiber, but that was an impressionistic cover about the variety of Fritz’s stories, rather than anything inspired by what I had written.

Now, helping with the back story of the Imperial Realms online game, I’ve seen four illustrations so far of my work by Avi Pinhas and Ken Henderson. In coming months, I expect to see more.

I have mixed reactions to these illustrations. Some I admire, while some plainly contradict what I wrote. But, in all cases, my main reaction has little to do with whether I like or dislike the rendering. Instead, I’m overwhelmed by how unsettling I find seeing someone else’s interpretation of my words.

As a writer of fiction (or, in this case, pseudo-fact), I am very visually oriented. When I finish writing, the words that remain seem the best reflection of the images in my mind that I can achieve in the circumstances.

What is humbling, frustrating, and exciting all at the same time is the realization that, as much as the words seem accurate to me, they’re self-evidently open to interpretations I hadn’t considered. And some of these interpretations are at least as valid as the ones I had in mind.

The fact that these differences in interpretation can exist has me questioning traditional notions of creativity, and the degree of control anyone can have over what they produce. If others can draw things out of my words that I didn’t intend but can’t reject as incorrect (at least not without insisting that only my vision is valid), then I have to wonder how much control I have over what I write.

Clearly, I have some; from the start, Ken Henderson’s depiction of the alien race called the Tsihor, for example, is very close to the image in my mind of a species that might form a biker gang with Cthulhu. Yet, equally clearly, the degree of control is limited, and party determined by what others bring to the work.

That suggests the auteur theories of art, in which the creator molds every aspect of the impression that others receive is not only misleading, but threatens to lure the creative into an impossible effort to control everything about the audience’s experience.

But does that mean that all that the creative should do is throw out vague impressions and hope that some of them resonate in the audience? To accept that alternative seems equally extreme.

I can’t help wondering, too, what the third generation reaction will be, when players react to the combination of pictures and words. Perhaps if some of them are inspired to their own artwork, I’ll find out. But I wonder how much of the third generation reaction will be from my work. And should I care, when I can’t control it anyway?

Another line of thought is that the translation of my words into pictures somehow validates them. Of course, this is partly an illusion, since all of us are doing work for hire, not necessarily work that we would choose on our own, but it’s a remarkably persistent one. Regardless of whether the images do or don’t correspond to the ones in my mind, I’d be lying if I pretended not to get a kick from seeing my words shaping other people’s creations.

So far, I’ve only had the smallest taste of this experience. However, it’s enough for me to imagine what directors and producers must feel when their finished production appears on film. It must be an exhilarating experience. I wonder, though: does their first experience of the process affect their subsequent work? Does it make them more or less careful? Affect their work in any other way? It would be interesting to find out.

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When I was involved with Dungeons and Dragons back in my university days, I always preferred being Dungeon Master to playing. It wasn’t so much that I enjoyed masterminding psycho-drama – although I admit that I cackled at the look on a male player’s face when his female character seduced someone and he found out that I was rolling for pregnancy. But what really interested me was the creative possibilities. That’s probably why I’m so fascinated now with my recent side project of creating the backstory for Imperial Realms, an online strategy game currently in development.

The basic story is already sketched out. It’s standard space opera: thousands of years in the future, in the ruins of a galactic empire, humanity is divided into numerous clans, all of whom compete against each other as well as a cast of alien species. My job is to paint in the details and help the game rise above the standard cliches.

For instance, it would be easy to turn the war-like Spartan clan into a neocon’s delight. Instead, I tried to give them more complexity by dividing them into political factions, each with its own ideas of how war should be carried out. Then, just to shake up the stereotypes, I’ve included mention of a radical team of mercenaries led by a husband and wife who specialize in overthrowing repressive regimes.

Similarly, I made the autistic Inlookers both brilliant and unstable, with a culture dominated by their eugenics program, adding a little detail of how one killed an emperor because he was blocking her sunlight.

For the Clones, I created a half dozen bloodlines and made them victims of persecution until they started a Zionist-like movement to settle their own planet. They are now divided by different traditions of reproduction and by the question of whether they should practice exogamy (breeding outside their bloodlines) or endogamy (breeding inside their bloodlines).

For the Aristocracy, the remnants of the ruling class, I imagined a sub-culture shattered by the disaster that toppled the empire. From the Aristocracy’s formerly exalted position, its members have been reduced to a constant competition for all the titles and offices that no longer have a clear line of inheritance. This competition leads them to displays of extravagant waste, such as destroying their estates in planned meteor showers — excesses that sometimes cause their own deaths.

This week, I’ve been taking notes for alien species. I’ve already written about the Tsihor, pack hunters who cannot meet face to face with humans without instincts taking over and causing an inevitable bloodbath. However, the Tsihor need humans, so both sides have to work around this problem.

Originally, I envisioned the Tsihor as small velocioraptors, but Steve Bougerolle, who master-minds the project, thought they didn’t seem alien enough. They were like fighting cocks, he said. “What does he know?” I asked myself, then, answering, “Enough to sign the cheques,” I redesigned them to make them Lovecraftian horrors.

Other aliens are in the works, and I hope that they will be eeriely strange and, in the cases where they are based on science-fiction standbys, sufficiently original to be interesting in their own right.

In all these cases, part of the challenges is to put as many hooks for plot development as possible into the accounts. These hooks take the form of rumors, which may or may not be true. Freed from the need to be strictly rational, I’ve injected each account with all sorts of gossip and speculation that can be picked up on – or not – once the game is launched.

The game is probably a couple of years from release, and a lot of what I know about it I can’t say. However, my Imperial Encylopedia entries will be posted to the web page soon, so I feel relatively free to talk about them. I’m hugely enjoying the chance to putter around backstage, and I’m looking forward to doing more.

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